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The Trivium


The seven liberal arts leading to Wisdom according to a 13th century monastery painting.

Note:  This treatment of the Trivium is not  intended to be argumentative (there’s nothing to argue), but simply to make the truth clear for the benefit of parents seeking true classical studies for their children.


There’s a lot said today about “the Trivium” in education circles, but most of it is ignorant and shallow, leading to false conclusions and practices.  When we hear people advertising books and study programs aimed at temporal ends (improved SAT scores, college admission, etc..) rather than the study of traditional Catholic philosophy and theology, we can be sure that it’s not the classical liberal arts they’re talking about at all.  Hopefully, Christian parents can see through that, even if they have not studied the classical liberal arts themselves.

Reasoning

To understand the Trivium,  we must first understand at least a little bit about Catholic Philosophy.  St. Thomas Aquinas explained that there are four divisions of philosophy, the first of which is Rational Philosophy, or the art and science of Reasoning, on which the other divisions depend.

Several years ago, one group advertised the “Latin Centered Curriculum” as a classical education program.  This is nonsense, of course, because classical education is not centered about one of the classical languages but about the art of Reasoning, which is the “instrument” (Grk. organon) of all wisdom-seeking.  Everything proceeds from and revolves around the art and science of Reasoning, which no schools today even attempt to teach because the “teachers” do not know it.  As we find in other subjects, they teach overly-simplified courses of their own making called “Logic” or “Dialectic”, using modern textbooks designed for modern school objectives, but the students’ knowledge is easily proven false by their inability to understand Aristotle’s works.  Blessed John Henry Newman criticized these artificial  modern studies and said, “To think correctly, we must think like Aristotle.“–not Dr. Jones or Mrs. Smith.

Grammar

The doctrine of Rational Philosophy is learned in Aristotle’s Organon, which takes for granted the knowledge of classical Grammar.  Thus, to study Reasoning, it is necessary to first study classical Grammar, through which ideas, in all their complexity, can be accurately named.  If the course in Grammar  provided to the student does not satisfy the objectives of classical Grammar as understood by the philosophers, it will not prepare them to progress in the pursuit of Wisdom.

For example, when we move into the study of Reasoning, we find that Aristotle requires the following understanding of a Noun:

“A noun is a sound significant from compact, without time, of which no part taken separately is significant.”

Only a Grammar program that prepares a student to understand language in this way can be called a “classical” Grammar program.  This is why signing up for a Latin course doesn’t mean that a student is actually receiving  true, classical education.  What is needed is not “conversational” Latin, but a systematic Grammar course that proves true and helpful when we seek to move on to higher studies.  The CLAA is the only program that offers classical Grammar courses of this quality.

Rhetoric

As in Reasoning and Grammar, many modern publishers and schools are advertising books and courses under the name of “Rhetoric” that have nothing to do with the true, classical art spoken of by the ancients.   Aristotle explains that “Rhetoric is the counterpart to Reasoning” in his teaching because rhetoric is required for the fulfillment of a virtuous life explained in Aristotle’s Ethics:

“Man is a social animal, and the happy man has need of friends.”

The true art of Rhetoric is the means by which a man, having ordered his own thoughts and actions rightly, seeks to lead other men to join him in his good works.  However, a wise man understands that persuasion is not in his power and the true test of one’s rhetorical  expertise is not whether he persuades other men, but whether he attempts to do so as effectively as is possible.  This is why Aristotle says not that Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion”, as modern teachers falsely say, but the art by which man seeks to discover “all of the available means of persuasion”.

Further, when we learn that these means of persuasion are not matters of speaking or writing, but reach to man’s reputation (ethos), reasoning skills (logos) and understanding of human passions (pathos), we see that writing better essays and learning to speak in front of an audience have nothing to do with true, classical Rhetoric.

Understanding man’s nature and end, the necessity of the Trivium becomes clear.  Upon these three arts–Grammar, Reasoning and Rhetoric–depend all higher studies in the Quadrivium, in Philosophy and in Theology.  If the foundation is not rightly laid, the house that needs to be built cannot be built upon it.

Course Information


The CLAA offers a full range of courses in the three arts of the Trivium.  Click on a subject area below to learn more:

If you have any questions about the CLAA’s Trivium courses, please contact us.

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